A U.S. hardwood window to the world
The U.S. may already be the world’s biggest hardwood supplier, but AHEC sees exciting opportunities for developing its global market past, former chairman Dave Bramlage told Mike Jeffree.
Over his career Dave Bramlage, vice president of sales at Cole Hardwood Inc. and immediate past chair of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), has seen his industry transformed. He started out at Cole, then called Shafer Lumber Company, in 1979. At that time the U.S. hardwood sector was primarily focused on its domestic sales. It serviced certain mature overseas markets highly successfully, but relatively few, and many mills viewed exports as supplementary to U.S. business.
“The attention exports got reflected the state of domestic sales; when the U.S. market picked up, exports dropped off and vice versa,” said Mr Bramlage.
Today, he added, that picture could not be more different. The hardwood sector must now rank as one of America’s most export-oriented industries and its perspective is truly global. It sells a greater variety of species to a wider range of foreign markets than any time in its history. “U.S. hardwood exports are no longer an add-on,” said Mr Bramlage. “They’re an entity all their own.” And the cause of this dramatic evolution, which has seen the sector go from selling under 15% of its grade lumber output abroad to well over 50%, in less than two decades.
“Of course it’s been partly driven by necessity,” said Mr Bramlage. “The economic crisis and American housing crash resulted in a 50% fall in U.S. hardwood output. Mills had to find new markets to survive.” But another factor also lies behind American hardwood’s evolution into a truly export-oriented business and, according to Mr Bramlage, it’s been key to making the transition so successful. That, he maintains, has been the worldwide promotion and market development activity of AHEC.
“Over the last 20 years AHEC has been at the cutting edge of what’s happening in our industry,” he said. “It’s been that step ahead, predicting what’s coming down the line and really driving export markets; or in the words of AHEC European Director David Venables, ‘doing the visionary stuff business hasn’t got time to do’. It’s developed a dedicated team worldwide and created such an identity for American hardwoods, I can travel anywhere, say I’m in U.S. hardwood, and get AHEC mentioned back to me.”
Core to AHEC’s achievement, he said, is that it’s taken a 360-degree promotional focus, highlighting U.S. hardwoods’ technical, aesthetic and environmental credentials. Through initiating showcase construction and manufacturing projects, it has also encouraged architects, designers and engineers to push technical boundaries, leading to increasingly innovative applications in the marketplace.
Cole Hardwood’s export development in the last two decades and the benefits it has drawn from AHEC’s work, have mirrored those of the wider US hardwood industry. Mr Bramlage joined the Indiana lumber company in 1980 with a degree in natural resources and masters in geography from Ball State University. “I began in the concentration yard, carrying boards pile to pile,” he said. “I planned on staying a year, but found it so interesting, one year became 38!”
After moving through the sales ranks, his first working contact with AHEC came around 20 years ago. “This industry’s move to exports has been the phenomenon of my career, but Cole started out fairly modestly, firstly in Europe,” he said. “We then identified Japan as the biggest potential market in Asia – I even started learning Japanese – and we subsequently looked to Taiwan. Our focus on the rest of Asia, notably China, came after that, which is when I started working with AHEC’s John Chan, who was instrumental in getting our business there started.”
The rest, as they say is history. Like much of the rest of the U.S. industry, over subsequent years Cole saw its Chinese sales climb steadily and then, from the 1990s, exponentially. That, said Mr Bramlage, was when the emergence of China’s new middle class started to impact and its domestic wood product consumption to soar. While U.S. hardwood export growth since the 1990s has come from Asia, Mr Bramlage insists this has not resulted in any less emphasis on long-established European markets.
“European buyers remain among our most valued customers; they take a lot of prime grade,” he said. “Europe is also significant as a global leader in terms of new timber product development and applications in architecture and design. Where Europe goes, the rest of the world often follows.”
This is reflected, he said, in the fact that AHEC’s European office has initiated showcase projects in association with leading architects, designers and manufacturers, not just to demonstrate, but to develop U.S. hardwood’s construction and manufacturing potential. It also runs student competitions to engage European specifiers of the future.
A key recent focus has been architectural and engineering projects highlighting hardwood’s structural capabilities in the groundbreaking form of engineered and thermo treated timber products. All originally displayed at the London Design Festival, the Timber Wave demonstrated red-oak’s capabilities in laminated form; the Endless Stair tulipwood’s strengths as cross laminated timber (CLT); and last year’s The Smile comprised the first use of industrial scale structural hardwood CLT panels. These are effectively shop windows for US hardwood and garnered international media coverage worth millions of dollars in equivalent advertising space. And construction projects these have directly or indirectly inspired recently include the new Maggie’s Cancer Care centre in Oldham, billed as the world’s first permanent building in hardwood (tulipwood) CLT, and the Warner Stand at the iconic Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. The latter features a canopy supported by 11 23m long US white oak glulam beams made by Hess Timber in Germany.
“These projects are an incredible inspiration to the market and the U.S. hardwood industry itself, really demonstrating the performance possibilities of this material,” said Mr Bramlage. “Working with the world’s most creative people also means others want to talk to you. It gives us that foot in the door.”
AHEC’s efforts have also been targeted at demonstrating U.S. hardwoods’ carbon and wider environmental benefits. Research highlighting timber and wood product life cycle assessment superiority has been a strong focus and the just revised Seneca Creek illegality risk assessment study has also proven increasingly valuable, given the global spread of market legality requirement regulation, like the EUTR.
“AHEC’s recently developed American Hardwood Environmental Profile (AHEP), also has great market potential. It effectively provides an environmental passport, providing evidence of everything from a shipment’s origin, its legality and sustainability, to LCA and carbon footprint data. Its new interactive map, which gives U.S. national and regional forest distribution, growth and removal figures, is also a significant development,” said Mr Bramlage. “Importantly these tools offer alternative evidence of sustainability to certification, which is requested by many export customers, but is just not viable at scale in the fragmented U.S. forest sector, where land owners like me hold average timber lots under 50 acres.” Overall, he maintained, AHEC is doing “an excellent job conveying the greenness and sustainability of the U.S. hardwood industry to customers worldwide”.
For the future, Mr Bramlage sees a range of markets for AHEC to develop globally. “Certain parts of Africa are very viable, India is showing signs of life as a lumber market, the Middle East offers exciting opportunities and South America is relatively untapped,” he said. He also sees that opportunity to use the expertise and experience gathered by AHEC worldwide to help develop the U.S. hardwood market.
“We don’t have those relationships with U.S. designers and architects yet, but we’re pulling that list together,” said Mr Bramlage, “and it’s very exciting that U.S. architects IKD recently designed the Conversation Plinth, America’s first hardwood CLT demonstration construction project in Columbus, Indiana. It drew on inspiration from The Smile, but using five species. ”
There are also great possibilities, he maintained, for the U.S. hardwood sector to build awareness of its environmental credentials at home as it has done abroad.
“What we need is an AHEC for the American market!” he said.